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Is TV at its best and Hollywood at its worst?

In the US, the debate rages on as to whether television is better than movies. Some observers say television production qualities have improved manifold over the recent years, shows take risks, and the roles for women on American TV are arguably much better than in movies. Small wonder Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon are trying their hands at small-screen glory.

It is not that often that women get fully and richly textured roles in films. Someone like the character of Amazing Amy in ‘Gone Girl’ is an exception. Contrarily, stars like Claire Danes have been able to redefine themselves on television. Danes plays a C.I.A. agent with bipolar disorder on ‘Homeland’.

Dustin HoffmannActor Dustin Hoffmann recently raked up the film versus television debate. “Right now, television is the best that it’s ever been, and I think it’s the worst that film has ever been—in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst,” Hoffmann told ‘The Independent’.

“It’s hard to believe you can do good work for the little amount of money these days. We did ‘The Graduate’ and that film still sustains. It had a wonderful script that they spent three years on, and an exceptional director with an exceptional cast and crew, but it was a small movie, four walls and actors, and yet it was 100 days of shooting.”

A big change in TV programming came through cable networks like HBO who have taken the lead for many years now. Many movie stars such as Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon cannot wait to be involved with it, and for good reason. The scripts are superb. There is no mad rush to get strong ratings. There is also no box-office worry. There is a lot of creative freedom offered unlike film where often studios prefer to put things in a box.

In fact, critics have cited HBO miniseries like ‘Angels in America’ and ‘Mildred Pearce’ as being in their top 10 movies list.

Earlier this year at a discussion at the Sundance Film Festival, Oscar winning actor, director Robert Redford said, “There are more opportunities for artists. I think TV is advancing faster than filmmaking.”

Still AliceYes, one does get high-quality movies like ‘Still Alice’, which won Julianne Moore the Oscar. However, these tend to be more on the independent side. It is also the specialty side that does things, such as Fox Searchlight. But some of those kinds of movies find it hard to make their money back. Also, some of the specialty divisions of studios went belly-up because of bad decisions. HBO filled that void.

The new wave of content is led by OTT platforms like Netflix who have become content creators.

Studios, meanwhile, are increasingly becoming risk averse. The temptation to simply bang out superhero movies, which often show nothing innovative from a storytelling point of view, is on the rise. Nevertheless, one cannot blame them when dinosaurs are running rampage at the box office.

This means that the temptation for Hollywood film studio executives is to obsess on the tentpole characters who wear a cape and not try anything creatively different. Many find it hard to take a direction down a road less travelled.

Talk to filmmakers who want to make ambitious, high-minded pictures that are not just action and they will tell of a funding struggle.

This is revealing. In 2014, 677 films were released. 549 of those were independent, 128 were studio films. But the theatrical revenue that went to the studios was 76 per cent. So while studios made less movies those gobbled the most money. Meanwhile, independent films, which are large in number, are fighting for less box-office money.

Along with this somewhere down the road, the mid-budget movie has been cut out a lot. Twenty years ago, it was possible to make a mature movie targeting adults for $20 million. Studios were more open to this. Now it is tough as the focus is more on recovering money on the first weekend. That is more likely to happen with a recognisable franchise. Also, marketing movies is more important than ever. As a result, many auteurs have disappeared or have taken refuge to television like Steven Soderbergh.

Behind the CandlelabraSoderbergh, who won an Oscar for ‘Traffic’, made the move to HBO and did ‘Behind the Candlelabra’. Soderbergh saw the end of the tunnel and audience at the San Francisco International Film Festival two years ago, “The idea of cinema as I’m defining it is not on the radar in the studios. This is not a conversation anybody’s having; it’s not a word you would ever want to use in a meeting. Speaking of meetings, the meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies… You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make. That’s one reason studio movies aren’t better than they are, and that’s one reason that cinema, as I’m defining it, is shrinking.”

He also spoke on why the studios prefer to throw a lot of money than little money. “If it costs 10, you’re going to be in profit sooner. Maybe not. Here’s why: OK. $10 million movie, 60 million to promote it, that’s 70, so you’ve got to gross 140 to get out. Now you’ve got $100 million movie, you’re going spend 60 to promote it. You’ve got to get 320 to get out. How many $10 million movies make 140 million dollars? Not many. How many $100 million movies make 320? A pretty good number. And there’s this sort of domino effect that happens too. Bigger home video sales, bigger TV sales, so you can see the forces that are sort of draining in one direction in the business.”

Francis Ford Coppola, who made The Godfather trilogy of movies, summed it up thus at the Marrakech International Film Festival last year. “You try to go to a producer today and say you want to make a film that hasn’t been made before; they will throw you out because they want the same film that works, that makes money. That tells me that although the cinema in the next 100 years is going to change a lot, it will slow down because they don’t want you to risk anymore.”

It is not just Hoffmann who feels the way he does about movies. Director Bernardo Bertolucci two years ago while speaking to Reuters remembered Old Hollywood fondly. “I saw ‘Stagecoach’ and for me John Ford became Home. I was in front of a full-length mirror and what I was seeing at 12 wasn’t me, it was John Wayne.

Mad Men“My generation had an affair with American culture, there’s no doubt about it. A street lamp and a fire hydrant made me sing in the rain. But the American films I like now do not come from Hollywood studios but from television series, like ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘The Americans.'”

Of course, Hoffmann is talking about a different era—the late 1960s and the 1970s. For many that is considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. There wasn’t a churning out of films. In those days, fewer films were made, but many broke ground and are considered landmarks. Films like ‘The Graduate’, ‘In The Heat Of The Night’, ‘Network’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘Jaws’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ are studied today.

Today what has happened is that films telling those sorts of stories are being made on television. It is not that those kinds of stories are not being made. It is just that they are being made for television especially cable either as shows or as TV movies. Film, on the other hand, relies increasingly on spectacle.

The situation was the reverse 15–20 years back. Before HBO came along, many series that now air on it might have been seen more easily on the big screen than on TV. But the action has now moved beyond HBO. New media companies like Netflix are being innovative and making thoughtful shows like ‘House of Cards’ with fully realised characters.

The_Walking_Dead_title_cardAMC made waves with Frank Darabont’s ‘The Walking Dead’. DirecTV has also ventured into this area. Amazon has gone beyond an online seller of products by making shows like ‘Transparent’. New media platforms have given television a big fillip.

The quality of scriptwriting has a lot to do with why creative talent increasingly prefer television to movies. Some of the half-hour episodes of ‘30 Rock’, which ran for several seasons, packed more laughs than many comedy movies. It is also hard to find many movies with the subversive brilliance of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Dexter’. It is because of the sheer quality of writing that Alec Baldwin has arguably done his best work on ‘30 Rock’.

Television also has the natural advantage of being able to take time to develop characters because of the format. A film, on the other hand, is compressed into two hours or less. That is why many miniseries have greater character depth compared to movies where the same story would have cut out character arcs. Television shows can combine elements of drama and fear while at the same time having moments where you laugh. A film cannot do it that easily as during marketing of the film audiences might get confused. Is it a drama or a comedy?

There is another element. The debate of film versus TV is also pertinent because it is not just on the story telling front that television has been hugely improving. Even the technical side wows viewers. Shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ have been visually spectacular. ‘Angels in America’ also showed visual daring.

The problem is simple. Movies that do well at the box office most of the time are a spectacle like rampaging dinosaurs or another Spiderman reboot. That does not leave a lot of room for quality films or for new ways of thinking. However, the likes of ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Birdman’ do vie for Oscar awards.angels-in-america

Hoffmann though might have been a bit too pessimistic. It is not that films being made today are not breaking ground. Take ‘Boyhood’ a film made over 12 years, or ‘Birdman’ a film employing one take.

In an interview last year with Indiewire, Edward Norton, who got an Oscar nomination for ‘Birdman’, argues that quality is present. Therefore, there is no need for so much negativity. “I feel like people are always talking about the business and how hard it is. But, David Fincher’s got a terrific movie. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s got this movie. Wes Anderson has made one of his best movies ever. Richard Linklater made another great movie. Paul Thomas Anderson has made another great movie. Bennett Miller’s movie is incredible.

“Do you know what I mean? I mean like, c’mon. You can’t get cynical… what more do you want? How many good movies do you expect there to be?”

Having said that, there is still the small issue of box office. The business model for a non-blockbuster can be challenging. Theatrical revenue is still crucial especially given that DVD sales are declining. That neither ‘Boyhood’ nor ‘Birdman’ did well at the box office compared to Superhero movies says something about audiences tastes. If many films are not up to the mark or are not innovative, then the audience is in part surely to blame. Many just want comfort food. You get what you deserve. At the same time, audiences sometimes do support quality film. Three years ago, Oscar winners ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Life of Pie’ did well at the box office.

life-of-PiMark Harris four years back wrote a famous piece for GQ, ‘The Day Movies Died’. In that piece, James Shamus, who headed Focus Features, said, “Fear has descended and nobody in Hollywood wants to be the person who green-lit a movie that not only crashes but about which you can’t protect yourself by saying, ‘But at least it was based on a comic book!’ ”

Coming back to the point made earlier in the piece about specialty studios disappearing, Shamus noted, “There was a moment a few years ago when studios said, ‘Hey, all of these specialty companies seem to be taking up all the seats in the front row at the Oscars, so if they can do it, we can do it—we’ll just throw money at them!’ And the results, financially, ranged from mildly catastrophic to ridiculously catastrophic.”

That boom Harris noted went bust. Several of the studio-owned boutique divisions overspent insanely, often on weak material. They muscled into the marketplace, laying waste to smaller indie companies in the process; then they collapsed under their own weight. Drama films took a beating as a result. HBO as noted earlier stepped into the void.

In the same piece, Harris noted that film today has to be a brand. It makes the job of marketing so much easier. Therefore, it is more comfortable to green-light more ‘Fast And Furious’ films that it is to find the next ‘Inception’.

The fear of non-branded movies, Harris noted, can occasionally approach the ridiculous, as it did in 2006 when Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ was widely viewed within the industry as a “surprise” hit, primarily because of its R rating and unfamiliar source material. It may not have been a brand, but, says its producer Graham King, “Risky? With the guy I think is the greatest living director and Nicholson, Matt Damon, Wahlberg, and Leo? If you’re at a studio and you can’t market that movie, then you shouldn’t be in business.”

Foreign markets making Hollywood movies generic: A crucial issue confronting Hollywood movies is the fact that foreign markets like China are very important. The recently released ‘Terminator Genisys’ will make much more overseas than it will in the US. This is affecting the quality of studio movies and making them generic, if not plain downright dumb.

In his speech, Soderbergh had noted that one thing studios take into consideration before deciding to make a movie is the foreign market. “It’s become very big. So that means, you know, things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.”

Seventy per cent of Hollywood’s revenue now comes from abroad, whereas earlier it was evenly split. This is not an issue that American television has to worry about.

The BBC last year in a story noted that potential overseas ticket sales nowadays determine whether or not a studio executive gives the go-ahead to a movie. David Hancock, head of film and cinema at IHS Screen Digest, was quoted in the story saying, “If it’s a larger budget production that’s meant to go abroad, then really the overseas revenues will be the dominant factor in that decision. They’re making films that have fairly universal ideas and themes; they’re not really culturally specific.”

The story noted that such is the importance of China that American film companies will go to extraordinary lengths not to offend. When word filtered through that the Hollywood invasion thriller ‘Red Dawn’—released in 2013—was going to feature Chinese villains, there was strong criticism in the Chinese media. In an unprecedented move, the villains were then digitally removed in post-production and replaced by North Koreans.

So is film better than TV? Well, the studios are increasingly relying on the formula of superhero franchises and multiple sequels to proven hits. Along with that, smaller movies are made many of which are nominated for the Oscars. But it is the franchise that is driving the film business to a large extent. Television especially on the cable side because of its format and business model does not rely on the superhero formula. It can innovate and do different things. New platforms have expanded the television universe.

GM Ferzad PaliaWhat do broadcasters of foreign channels in India who make decisions on what to focus on think about this Hollywood movies versus television debate? Viacom18 head of English entertainment Ferzad Palia said, “Television has grown by leaps and bounds and today it’s not the ‘small screen’ anymore. Bigger scale of production, heightened quality of storytelling, introduction of popular cast from Hollywood and innovative marketing, are a few reasons why TV series are steadily becoming the new movies.”

From the viewer’s perspective, he further added, “In the case of a movie, it’s two hours and then it is over. People talk about the movie for a short span of time before and after its release. For a TV series, every episode can become a talking point. Through season after season, people get involved with the story and it becomes a point of discussion in everyday life. This makes TV shows buzzier than movies.”

However, Times Network’s Vivek Srivastava, who heads their English entertainment channels business, feels that the debate is futile. “Is TV better than Films or vice versa, I think the debate is futile as they are two different mediums and thus treatment is different. Television is meant for linear viewing, unlike film which is a two-hour larger-than-life experience. They don’t compete with each other; at best they complement and get inspired by each other.

“So, at the end of the day good content will make good business, there is no set formula. The good part today is that investment is growing in both TV and films, thus storytelling is becoming better and so is the experience.”